Arts Desk

“It’s Not Always About Death”: Werner Herzog on Making Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog outside a Texas prison in Into the Abyss.

Werner Herzog has never shied away from baring his opinions directly to his documentaries' subjects or their audiences. In 2007's Encounters at the End of the World, he openly questions arctic researchers about their presence at the South Pole, clearly disdainful of the reach of industrialized society. So it is no surprise that in his newest film, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, Herzog begins stating his flat-out opposition to the death penalty. He says this to Michael Perry, a death-row inmate in Texas, just eight days before Perry is scheduled to die.

Into the Abyss, which opens today at Landmark E Street Cinema,  recounts a 2001 triple homicide committed by Perry, 27 when he died July 1, 2010, and Jason Burkett, who received a life sentence. But unlike Incendiary, another documentary about a Texas death penalty case released this year, Into the Abyss is not a political film. Though Texas Gov. Rick Perry (no relation to Michael Perry) may like to tout that he has presided over nearly 240 executions, the erratic presidential candidate is neither seen nor mentioned in Herzog's footage. "I'm not in the business of Texas bashing," Herzog says. He doesn't need to be to make a chilling, but touching, argument against capital punishment. We spoke by phone recently.

Washington City Paper: Texas has a lot of death penalty cases. How did you settle on Michael Perry’s?

Werner Herzog: I looked into various cases. The main thing that fascinated me was the senselessness of the crime. If you have a bankrobber who’s after the cash and you have a shootout and someone is killed. The senselessness is so enormous. It’s like a big American gothic. It’s not just about punishment, it’s about victims and victims families.

WCP: And what was the feeling you got from talking to him?

WH: I had 50 minutes. You had to find the right tone immediately. I told him right away that the fact that he apparently had a bad childhood, it did not necessarily mean that I had to like him.

WCP: Did you end up liking him?

WH: Not really. I think of all the men I have seen on death row, I believed he was the most dangerous I had ever seen. But I do respect him. People always tell me they are monsters and “Just kill them off.” Due process is very important, a great achievement of civilization.

WCP: The subtitle of your film is “A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life.” The death part is clear. How does life come into it?

WH: All of a sudden in the footage I shot it’s not always about death. Life comes back. It is something I did not fully expect. Sometimes a film has qualities that come out later. Of course it’s about the magnificence of life.

WCP: There was another film this year, Incendiary, that dealt with another death penalty case in Texas.

WH: I’m not familiar with it.

WCP: It argued whether a man who was executed was actually innocent.

WH: I do not necessarily need to make an issue film. I do not need to try to prove the innocence of someone. Errol Morris made a film where the question of guilt was an essential question and a man was freed after the film. In our case the question of guilt is clearly established. You cannot say that with our film. I told them (Michael Perry and Jason Burkett) in writing that this film is not a platform to prove your innocence. They both said yes in writing. I repeated that on camera which is not in the film.

WCP: Your interview with Fred Allen, the former death row warden, was quite moving.

WH: I am not a journalist. I do not have a catalogue of questions. I try to understand the heart of men and I have conversations.

WCP: Still, the conversation was moving. What impression did he make on you?

WH: Fred Allen is one of the characters I actually love. I’m not in the business of Texas-bashing. Texas created a man like Fred Allen. He should be a national treasure. You should not forget that Texas is the only state in the U.S. where the jury can find you guilty of murder and then in the sentencing phase let you walk free. I’m speaking of first-degree homicide. I think we should not be in the business of Texas bashing.

WCP: And Jason Burkett’s father, Delbert Burkett, is very sad.

WH: He does not believe that he’d ever be free again. He’s mature enough to admit his guilt and he has deep insights. In a way he’s a very tragic figure. He is somehow the epicenter of everything that went wrong. Both his sons incarcerated. He being incarcerated. All his insights come to him at a time when it’s too late. I met him only for 50 minutes in my entire life. What you see in the film is basically what my experience was.

WCP: What about the victims’ families?

WH: The film is dedicated to them. Everybody seems to focus on crimes. But I think the film is very much about the families of victims. It’s important that this film is dedicated to them.

WCP: Do you count Michael Perry as a victim?

WH: No. There are other people in the same system who didn’t end up there with triple homicide. I tell him he apparently had a bad childhood but that doesn’t necessarily exonerate him. I knew this could end the interview.

WCP: Did your views on the death penalty or the American penal system evolve at all in making this film?

WH: They didn’t evolve at all. Coming from a different historical background my position is “I respectfully disagree.” Would you like me to tell Americans how to handle criminal justice? No, of course not. But it’s not an issue film. I’m not into America-bashing or Texas-bashing. But I think the curb of executions is going down slightly. I hope that statistics will continue to be encouraging as they are at the moment. I’m a guest in your country and I like America.

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